Archive for July, 2013

Toughing It Out, Part 2

by on Tuesday, July 23rd, 2013

 In the first part of this interview, Sharon talks about getting to a teaching job in Saudi Arabia, working there, getting fired and leaving. Here she relates her experiences in Nepal. 

Sharon’s story

 After I was terminated, I was told I’d be flown anywhere I wanted to go, so I went to Nepal in order to go trekking on Mt. Everest. I figured that after my trek I could find another ESL job online. The recruiting company flew me first class on Gulf Air, my first flight in such luxury.  It must have cost a fortune: small canapés with linen napkins, huge seats, amazing amenities.

Flying into Nepal was total culture shock. All I could see were the tops of filthy shacks. I thought of Dr. Seuss and imagined a giant machine spraying all the dingy brown buildings green, yellow and white and another machine sucking up all the trash. It seemed to be a combination problem from both the Western trekkers and the guide companies. They left oxygen bottles, noodle wrappers, food wrappers, liquor bottles, human feces and animal feces. Of course the view was beautiful, but you didn’t hike in the view. You had to look at your feet so you wouldn’t break an ankle. I found the trash there more depressing than in Kathmandu because it was created by Westerners who had resources and had been educated in environmental stewardship. One trekker from Australia said she hired a guide company because of its statements about being eco-friendly, but she’d seen no evidence of this.

I took a jeep part of the way up Mt. Everest and then a bus into some northern villages. Girls got on and nursed their babies. Passengers brought chickens and bags of rice. There was a guy riding on the outside of the bus and beating on it. People were packed in so they couldn’t breathe. They were sitting on top of each other. Later, when I was on a jeep, the passengers had to get out and push the thing through ruts in the road which were as long as from my knee to the end my foot. Kids came to help us. In Juri and Deepavali I visited schools. I gave a dental lesson to a little nine-year-old. I met a minister in one of the villages who told me about the terrible alcohol problems. Many of the villagers make roxi and chong from local materials. They drink Western brands of whiskey and vodka imported for the trekkers. The “tea houses” which offer accommodation are anything but quaint—very rough construction, toilets in the floor or outdoors. Kerosene lamps. I met a lovely couple from Holland that I chummed around with.

I’d planned to spend three weeks trekking, but I cut it down to seven days, went back to Kathmandu and got a teaching job at a school near the British embassy. Then I’m not clear what happened. When I’d gotten out of a taxi about eight o’clock at night, I had my passport and all my money in a travel pouch which went around my neck, but I thought I’d put it in my purse. My room at the hostel wouldn’t lock. The next morning when I got up to teach my class—and I was being observed that day—I couldn’t find it. I was panic-stricken, but I tried to get through one minute at a time. I taught my class and went back to my room and I tore it apart. So I went to the police station—several police stations—to make a report. They said, “Well, you’ve got to go to your embassy.”

“What? Don’t you understand? I have no money.”

I went back to my room and I tried not to panic or to be overcome with self-pity. I sold my beautiful trekking gear—the sleeping bag, backpack, trekking poles and brand-new hiking gloves I’d bought in Saudi Arabia. I got only enough money to buy some soup, water and bus fare to the embassy.

Since then I’ve met an American who’d traveled widely in Asia. He told me I’d probably been watched. The thieves were so clever they could sneak into your room and lift money, passports, jewelry while you were asleep without being detected. He at least put my confusion to rest regarding what could have happened to my passport and money.

The next day I sent out emails regarding my desperate plight. The loss had occurred on Wednesday night. By Saturday a parent of one of my Singaporean students had wired me a hundred Australian dollars. I picked the money up at Western Union and started looking for cheaper housing in the tourist ghetto called Thamel. I was too embarrassed to tell the people at the school where I worked that I’d lost my passport and my money. I didn’t know these people. How would that affect my standing in the school? But I finally did share my situation. A helpful coworker showed me cheaper housing, which was down a tiny, skinny walkway alley, on the sixth floor of a marble building with no heat and infrequent hot water.

I was teaching only one class and making about $7 a day, but I was paid only half of that until the course was over—an insurance policy for the school owner. Nepal is cheap. The average person lives on $1.25 US a day. You can get water for about a quarter, and you can eat instant noodles, which of course are terrible for you. I found a delicious tofu-spinach soup at a restaurant in Thamel for about fifty cents. For six weeks I didn’t eat meat because it was too expensive. My room was about $3 a day. I’d sleep in all my clothes and my wind-stopper hat.  I stuck torn newspaper and cloth in the cracks in the window panes. To stave off the cold the hotel front desk issued guests very heavy, thick comforters which had been covered with white cheesecloth in lieu of sheets.  I still had my backpacker’s stove with a propane tank, so I could make instant coffee and soup, and I’d heat up beans. I bought Scottish oat cakes for breakfast.  There was a shower on the floor, but sometimes there was hot water and sometimes not, so I’d go two weeks without showering or washing my hair.

Nanglo, a restaurant popular with locals and tourists, had free wi-fi. Every day after class I went there to start job hunting on websites like Dave’s ESL Cafe. A friend in the US kept saying, “Sandra, get out of there.” People I met on Skype wired me money. A man I didn’t know except through friends of friends wired me $90. Another woman paid for my housing. The woman from Singapore bought my passport so that I could continue to look for a job. I just couldn’t believe it. But what would I have done otherwise? The online job search was going nowhere. None of the employers in China or Saudi Arabia wanted to hire out of Nepal. They wanted me to go back to the US and contact them from there. I didn’t know why. My diploma and my master’s and my teaching license hadn’t changed, but I wasn’t getting any job offers.

An Egyptian construction company said they wanted to hire me to do human resources. I’d have to go to Vermont for training. I spoke briefly on Skype with someone from the company. I was thrilled, but some of it didn’t sound right, so I did a search using their peculiar language, and sure enough, it was a scam.

When I went to the US embassy, one of the staff members laughed in my face. “You came to Nepal to look for a job?”

Staff at United States embassies at first seem cold and distant. I’ve discovered they’re actually not. The people working in these facilities have a hard job fortifying the US mission and dealing with daily threats we’re not aware of. Today I follow our embassies in various countries on Facebook. I can’t sufficiently express my gratitude for the help extended to me by the embassy in Kathmandu. The grounds were spectacular, and the embassy had an environmental cleanup day and earthquake evacuation training. I told all the Thamel people I met, “Here, go to the library at the embassy.” Nepalese people can go there to use the library and the computers, and the women can get Korean-made or US-made condoms in the women’s bathroom.

I was told that if the embassy sent me home it could get very expensive and that if possible I should find a family member or friend to buy an airline ticket for me. I couldn’t. They asked for a list of five people, and I gave them the names and contact information for eight friends from the US, China, Singapore, England, Australia and New Zealand. The embassy called all eight. No one could ante up the airfare. So the embassy paid for my flight on US Air from Kathmandu to Indianapolis and gave me money for food en route. They took my passport and issued a seven-day travel passport. I could get my passport back only after I’d repaid the travel loan, plus the interest and fees which accrued when I couldn’t pay it back within thirty days of arrival in the States. It became very expensive.

In the meantime I went to the Boudhanath Stupa shrine and all the monasteries. I meditated. I checked out the Hyatt-Regency and the Radisson to see what those places looked like. At the Radisson, which was close to my school, I could get warm and wash my face in hot water. I visited a hospital and two remote village schools and went to the British embassy for Christmas Eve services. I took a motorcycle ride with a student in the Nepalese army who was tall and handsome. It was very exciting and very dangerous to be riding a motorcycle without a helmet, but I was throwing caution to the winds. I played catch with guests from my hotel who were friends with people who making fires in the streets to stay warm.

I spent Christmas with three young girls who’d paid to come from Switzerland to do volunteer work in one of the orphanages. They gave me some chocolates and a darling card and mittens. I met a woman who worked for the World Bank and another who worked for the Asian Society.  I also met a couple of volunteers from Canada who were on their fourth visit to Nepal. This time they’d come to donate water equipment in a village.

The wife said, “Oh, it’s what you’ve come to give that counts,” and I thought I’d given a lot—my passport, my money and my trekking gear.

On January 28th the embassy sent me home. I arrived in Indianapolis broke but grateful to be alive and to see friends I’ve known since school days. Since then I’ve worked grading exams for a testing company, observed a university ESL day for Saudi students and catered a few events at the Children’s Museum. I drove for the Super Bowl 46, a job I’d gotten online with the Wi-Fi at Nangol Restaurant in Kathmandu. To get my passport back I also worked at Mount Rainier, in California, an Arizona dude ranch and an Arizona wooden flute manufacturer. I worked for a feng shui expert, did home health care, worked at the Indiana State Fair and raked leaves.

When I went to get my passport, the Treasury Department employee who waited on me said, “Well, ma’am, it’s taken you over a year to pay this debt.”

 I said, “Young man, how dare you try to shame me! I’ve worked twelve jobs in five states in order to repay this loan.” It cost me $1,800 to get a new passport, which I’m using to return to Saudi Arabia to work for an international language school.

Since returning to the States I’ve reflected on my time in Saudi and Nepal. Reflections on God, peace, inner harmony. Most people here have no idea what poverty is. I experienced it initially while having to shore up my inner resolve with each passing day. I don’t know how long I could live with nothing while still feeling positive, hopeful and thankful for each breath, but this experience gave me the opportunity to do it for a bit. As the God-conscious author Joel Goldsmith wrote,  “If it isn’t one thing, it’s another.”

Since this interview Sharon and her boyfriend have decided to look for employment possibilities in Oman and Indonesia.  


Toughing It Out, Part 1

by on Tuesday, July 9th, 2013

This is a 2012 interview done over Skype, when I was in the Philippines and Sharon was in Indianapolis. Her adventures in Saudi Arabia and Nepal will be the first of new stories indexed as “elsewhere in Asia.”

Sharon’s story

I started traveling in 2009. I taught in Singapore, China and Indonesia. Then in 2012 via I found a position through a recruiting company. The position was with a university preparatory program in Saudi Arabia. The company emailed me my airline ticket for flights from Los Vegas to Istanbul. I didn’t realize they hadn’t arranged for any visa documents. In Istanbul, Turkish Airlines employees helped me sort out my lack of  Saudi entry documents. I had to buy a Turkish visa for an overnight stay.   While waiting to hear what was what, I taught one of the Turkish Airlines employees how to play cards.  The recruiting company put me up in a quaint inn on a cobblestone street and instructed me to fly to Manama, Bahrain the next day. When I arrived at the Qatar Airlines ticket counter, I had to sign a disclaimer saying I wouldn’t hold the airline liable in case of a disaster. There was civil unrest going on in Bahrain, and my ticket had no exit date on it.

When I travel I carry business-size envelopes and colored pencils. In the airport waiting area I met a Saudi family, and we did what I call “envelope art.” This gives people an easy way to connect with others despite language problems, a fun memory and a creative mailer. The family drew a map of their country on the back. The Qatar Airlines employees told me what Turkey was like both in the east and in the west. One had lots of stories to share about working for the Disney Corporation in Orlando. At one point I’d become such a part of the group that I was even giving directions to customers at the airline counter. On the way to Qatar I met an architect from the Seattle area who had once designed a home for one of Bill Gates’ friends, but now because of the failing US economy simply couldn’t work there any longer. He’d accepted a two-year contract in Jeddah.

While I was in Turkey, all my communications with the company had been by email. I’d never talked to anyone on the telephone. After I arrived in Manamah, I spent eleven days at the Day’s Hotel, five of those without my suitcase. The hotel was several blocks from a very informative museum which I visited a couple of times. I took long walks around the island and attended lectures at the Al Fateh Mosque. I met people in the hotel restaurant at the Day’s Hotel and played Scrabble with an airline mechanic from Spain. After the company contracted a visa agent to facilitate my medical examination for my Saudi visa, two men picked me up and took me to a local medical clinic which tested my urine, blood pressure and eyesight and checked my skin. The next morning an agent came to pick up my stool sample from the hotel’s front desk. Finally I got my visa, and I flew into Riyadh. At the airport I didn’t have an abaya–the floor length black robe and head scarf to cover myself with. I’d foolishly assumed that since it was mandatory the company would provide one.

Before I left for the Middle East, I read travel writings by Freya Stark, who first went there in 1927. [See ]But nothing in the world can prepare you for arriving in Saudi Arabia, just as there are no words to describe the air pollution in China. You have to sign  a document stating that you will obey all religious and secular laws. It doesn’t take long to “get with the program” regarding all of the do’s and don’ts. For example, although I’d been told that as a Western woman I need not cover my head, on a shopping trip with other teachers I was confronted by a mattawa, a religious policeman. His identity was clear from his white, ankle-length thobe. He said, “You are in Saudi Arabia. Cover yourself.”

I almost blurted out, “You’re so cute.” I’m so glad I didn’t.

At the university I saw something was wrong when I found out my classes had already had eight or nine teachers earlier the same year. Each of the teachers came and only stayed a very short period of time, like a few weeks or less.

The school was in a three-story, walled building just outside the main campus. The students were twenty-year-old females who had to attend for a year before being admitted to the main university program. The government paid them to attend. Every day they arrived in expensive cars, some after traveling long distances. I had two classes. My smaller class of ten students loved me, and I loved them. But in my larger class, with thirty students, discipline was a problem. Going to school was a social experience for these young women, so they’d talk through class, and the administration didn’t want them told to be quiet. You could say, “You’re being a little chatty,” but you couldn’t get irritated with them. You could assign homework, but you had no leverage over them if they didn’t do it. You couldn’t flunk anybody. Sometimes they’d do the work, and sometimes they wouldn’t. They weren’t motivated because they had so much money that they didn’t have to earn their living. They couldn’t see why studying and applying themselves might be beneficial. In the Middle East there’s no concept of learning something because it’s interesting and something they might want to know or of wanting to develop a particular skill.

The English classes were 90 minutes long with a break for prayers. They had six levels of English—all skills, writing, reading, listening speaking, grammar. I taught level 3 with an American co-teacher. We were supposed to have textbooks, but only one class did. A typical class would start with an icebreaker, like “I would rather marry a rich man than a handsome man” or “I would rather be a little fat and enjoy chocolate than be skinny and do without.” Then the class would split up according to their preferences and talk about them. Or the girls would line up by height and we’d make sentences with “tall, taller, tallest” and “short, shorter, shortest.” Then we’d do their lesson with the textbook or the Smart Board and the Internet or some kind of writing. Or the students would get into small groups to come up with adjectives to describe reading or clothing or places. I’d pass out packets with pieces of paper cut up, and they’d have to put individual words together to make sentences or put sentences together to make paragraphs. We did reader’s theater, reading aloud and sharing in pairs. There was a long list of things you couldn’t discuss in Saudi Arabia: boyfriends, music, movies, politics, religion and even superheroes like Batman and Superman. I had the students discussing travel. For example, one person might say, “On Saturday I am going to travel to the Empty Quarter.” That’s a large expanse of desert. And the other person might respond, “What will you do in the Empty Quarter?”

Some of the teachers invested a lot of money in their own printers and word processors, but then they wouldn’t stay long because they got fired or quit. One of the teachers didn’t want to make materials, so she bought a bunch of word games in a bookstore in Riyadh. She divided her classes into groups and did games a lot. But I must say, on the third floor there was the most amazing “thinking room” with chess sets, rubric cubes—about fifty different mind activities. It was very well put together.

Mostly the school was dreary. There’s no way to exercise. The students were only allowed onto the main campus for thirty minutes a day. I tried to get my girls to walk upstairs to the thinking room—all the research shows that moving around helps you absorb information better. But they thought that was horrible. They wanted to get on the elevator. The dean criticized me for trying to make them get them up and start moving. Climbing stairs wasn’t ladylike.

A lot of the teachers were very unhappy. Several of the women of color claimed to have converted to Islam, although their behavior certainly didn’t show it. I think it came from a strong desire to conform to the majority. They also couldn’t understand why I was there. They said, “You’re not black. Why do you want to be here?” I said, “I don’t think skin color has anything to do with it. It’s an interesting cultural experience.”

After I left I heard that one of the teachers had gotten pregnant by the Egyptian desk clerk and that the teacher they were hanging out with every day had turned them in to the matawa. The company got all three of them out of the country, but the desk clerk had to pay a huge fine first. If the matawa had caught up to the couple, they would have killed them.

 One day in November, I was cleaning and organizing my grade-level classroom, which I shared with twenty other teachers, when an administrator came in and said, “You might want to read your email.” That’s how I found out I’d been dismissed three days earlier. I just laughed. I thought it was hilarious. No reason was given, but I knew that if any of the technology in the classroom didn’t work, any of the software or hardware for your E-Podium or your Smart Board, they blamed you. This is apparently typical Saudi thinking. For example, if you’re in a taxi and there’s a car accident, get out and run, because the thinking is it’s your fault: if you hadn’t been in the taxi there wouldn’t have been an accident.

Now, by this time I’d met a lawyer who’d done post-doctoral work at Harvard. He came to see me at my hotel apartment—I’d never been given teacher housing. I had to leave my door open, inform the front desk who he was, provide documents as evidence for this, and then stay covered head to toe while he was in my apartment. The matawa had started paying visits to our hotel. If an officer found an unmarried man with a woman he could beat both of them and then arrest them.

The lawyer looked at all my documents and encouraged me to sue. He said, “You have a crystal-clear case.”

I thought, a Western woman suing here? And on that contract? In Saudi courts, a woman appears with her husband, son, father and/or brother. Because the court never sees her face, two male family members have to vouch for who she is. I’d met a Western man who was suing his former employer. He couldn’t leave the country during the litigation, and he’d been in litigation for two years. He couldn’t work for anyone else. He had to continue paying for his housing in a diplomatic quarter, which was very pricy. Losing in court would mean paying the legal costs of everyone on the other side. For me suing was not an option. I started looking for another job, which the school knew, but employers don’t do local hires. I was told to go back to the US and I’d be interviewed from there.

When you’re asked to leave, you leave. No one told me what airline I was flying or what time. They don’t tell you anything. Our Indian driver just came and picked me up.